McElroy follows in John Milton’s footsteps in this slick, contemporary recreation of the war for heaven.
Readers have probably heard this story before: An upstart angel gets too big for his britches and attempts a heavenly coup. War ensues, but chaos is averted as hordes of superpowerful rebels are thrown into a fiery pit. That McElroy has the courage to take on this oft-told tale speaks both to his daring and to his ambition. Often, he’s up to his divine task. He writes confidently—sometimes brilliantly—and his story of arrogance, spite and betrayal has a truly epic feel (“A path had just been paved for angels to look at their own desire and decide what they were missing”). As readers shuttle between the two camps, they’ll think as often of Homer as of the Bible. However, when the author zooms in and focuses on individual characters, his touch is less deft. Unlike Milton’s Satan—whose diabolical allure is part of the thrill of his 1667 poem Paradise Lost—McElroy’s Lucifer is overweening and cardboard flat. All thoughtless pride, he makes his first appearance in the novel as quite literally a rock star, playing a heavenly guitar solo only to seethe when he’s upstaged by God; “I am the highest angel in Heaven,” he mutters. Readers next find him overseeing the construction of his own throne, asking a minion if it is “worthy of sitting next to God’s.” The Lord is also somewhat two-dimensional and has the trite habit of speaking in Bible verses. However, the author’s characterization of Lucifer’s foil, Gabriel, is subtler and thus more gripping; like the Amish craftspeople who leave a flaw in each quilt, the humble angel resists perfection. It’s a nice touch, but the novel can’t help pounding it home—sometimes quite literally: Working on a heavenly building, for example, Gabriel knocks a joist slightly askew, and walking by a pristine stream in paradise, he kicks dirt into the flow. Overall, McElroy’s retelling of the traditional Christian tale is detailed and sometimes thrilling; however, it might have been excellent if it had been a bit more original.
An often compelling story of Satan’s falls, despite some hackneyed plot devices.